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Monday, September 20, 2021

Memory of migrant crisis haunts Europe as first Afghan refugees land

The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has sent thousands of panicked Afghans scrambling to flee the country. But it has also panicked European politicians who are terrified of another mass movement of Muslim asylum-seekers.

By: New York Times | Berlin |
August 19, 2021 12:34:10 pm
A group of refugees scramble to board a train at Keleti station in Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 3, 2015. (Mauricio Lima/The New York Times/ File)

Even before the first group of 19 Afghan refugees landed in Germany on Wednesday, the line was making the rounds in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative party: “2015 mustn’t be repeated.”

Armin Laschet, who wants to succeed Merkel as chancellor after next month’s elections, said it Monday. A top party official used the same words shortly thereafter. A government minister repeated them again.

The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has sent thousands of panicked Afghans scrambling to flee the country. But it has also panicked European politicians who are terrified of another mass movement of Muslim asylum-seekers. They worry that new migrants will fan the embers of the far-right and populist movements that reshaped politics after a wave of asylum-seekers from the wars in Syria and Iraq made their way to Europe in 2015.

Support for anti-immigrant parties has since fallen along with migrant numbers. But with important elections looming in Germany and France, the line being drawn by European leaders is early and firm. Afghans are facing a compassion deficit in Europe that may be insurmountable.

That is so even though Afghanistan may present a more pressing moral obligation and responsibility for Europe than other wars, because many of its countries joined the US invasion in a NATO force after the 9/11 attacks on the United States.

“We Europeans have been in that country for 20 years. Of course, we have a moral responsibility, especially for the people who are fleeing this new Taliban regime,” said Jana Puglierin, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “And now we are saying Afghanistan is not our problem.”

The United States faces a similar, even more onerous quandary over accepting Afghan asylum-seekers. Almost everywhere, governments have expressed general willingness to accept Afghans who worked alongside U.S. forces or international aid groups but have provided little detail about how that might happen.

But they are wary of committing to the many thousands more who would seek to leave to avoid life under the Taliban, even though for now the numbers of migrants over land routes have been relatively low.

“We’re talking about thousands, not hundreds of thousands, who need our help, people who are on lists because they worked with us,” said Gerald Knaus, founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative.

Given the overall drop in migration numbers in recent years, it was “a straw-man argument” to raise fears of another wave. “2015 will not be repeated,” he said. “The comparison with 2015 is both completely misleading and politically dangerous.”

Hundreds of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa arrive at Augusta port in Sicily, Italy, Sept. 14, 2014. (Lynsey Addario/The New York Times/File)

 

It is happening nonetheless, reflecting the anxious politics of recent years. It was Germany, under Merkel’s leadership, that had once set the bar by welcoming more than 1 million refugees in 2015 and 2016 and laying down a challenge for its European partners.

The issue nearly cleft Europe in two, with Eastern countries balking at accepting arrivals and throwing up barbed-wire border fences. Ethnonationalism pushed down new roots. Anti-immigrant parties — which also happened to be anti-European Union — threatened to fracture the bloc further.

“You can’t underestimate the trauma of that time,” Puglierin said. “It was a moment when the mainstream consensus imploded, when it felt like Europe was hanging by a thread.”

“That’s what’s hanging over these reactions,” she added.

The changed tone coming from Berlin is already being echoed in various corners of Europe. Austria, which was on one of the main migrant routes six years ago, has categorically ruled out taking any Afghan refugees. Greece swiftly made clear it would not be the “gateway” for refugees to Europe again. France called for a “robust response” that would keep refugees closer to home.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, summed it up after meeting with ministers from across the bloc, saying that member states want “to ensure no wide-scale migratory move toward Europe.”

But experts warn that the effort to keep populist parties at bay could well backfire — reviving an issue that has faded. Real migrant numbers have fallen to their lowest level in years, and most borders porous in 2015 are now guarded.

If any party benefits from the issue in German elections, it will be the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, argued Knaus, who has advised Merkel on migration.

“If fears of an imaginary refugee stream will become a topic in the German election campaign, it will only benefit one party, and that is not the CDU,” he said, referring to the Germany’s mainstream conservative party. “It will help the AfD, which is actually weak, because we have hardly had any refugees.”

AfD leaders have seized the moment and noisily protested the arrival of Afghan refugees on their social media channels. Their main slogan echoes Laschet: “2015 cannot be repeated!” The AfD has been stagnant at around 10% of the vote.

Elsewhere, European leaders worry that another wave of arrivals could revive the fortunes of the National Rally party of Marine Le Pen in France and, in Italy, of both the League and the Brothers of Italy parties.

Matteo Salvini, whose League has struggled for attention within a wide coalition government, has jumped at the opportunity to return to his anti-immigration themes. “Open doors for thousands of men, including potential terrorists, absolutely not,” he wrote on Twitter.

Some European leaders, however, were more outspoken in acknowledging Europe’s responsibility.

Mario Draghi, the Italian prime minister, said on television Tuesday that those who helped Italy in Afghanistan were welcome, as well as “all those who exposed themselves for the defense of fundamental liberties, civil rights and human rights.”

Merkel, who leaves office after the election, was more nuanced than her fellow conservatives. She said that those who had worked alongside Westerners and now faced danger had to be saved.

“For many that worked on building progress and freedom — especially the women — these are bitter events,” she said. Now was the time, she said, “to get as many people as possible to safety.”

But the headlines are dominated by fear of a repetition of the scenario of 2015, when Merkel’s conservative-led government was seen to have lost control by some voters.

Refugees are transported by bus after their arrival in Germany during an immigration surge, in Dortmund, Germany, Sept. 17, 2015. (Gordon Welters/The New York Times/ File)

 

The leader of the Bavarian conservatives, Markus Söder, warned of a “wave of refugees” from Afghanistan and insisted that Germany “cannot have a second 2015.”

Across the border in Austria, the interior minister not only appeared to rule out taking any refugees but lobbied for “deportation centers” in the region neighboring Afghanistan.

“There is no reason why an Afghan should now come to Austria,” the minister, Karl Nehammer, said as European interior ministers met in a videoconference.

President Emmanuel Macron of France, who is under pressure from Le Pen, said bluntly, “Europe cannot alone assume the consequences” of Afghanistan’s fall.

Instead, he has urged the European Union to create a “robust response” to any new influx of migrants from Afghanistan that would essentially aim to pay transit countries to keep refugees there. Such an initiative, Macron said Monday, should build on “cooperation with transit countries,” like Turkey, Central Asian countries and Pakistan.

That appears to be the consensus that is emerging — the idea of Europeans working together to keep refugees in the region.

“The solution needs to be common, and it needs to be a European solution,” said the Greek migration minister, Notis Mitarachi.

“We are clearly saying that we will not and cannot be the gateway of Europe for the refugees and migrants who could try to come to the European Union,” Mitarachi told the state broadcaster ERT.

To achieve this, EU foreign ministers met Tuesday and decided that Brussels must engage the Taliban for pragmatic reasons, even before a government is established in Afghanistan.

Borrell, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, said afterward: “We’ll have to talk with them in order to engage in a dialogue, as soon as necessary, to prevent a humanitarian and potential migratory disaster.”

EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson said the bloc would “intensify” cooperation with the countries neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan, which host many Afghan migrants, as does Turkey, the main entry point for asylum-seekers until a 2016 deal between Brussels and Ankara, Turkey stemmed the flow.

The first evacuation flight with Afghan refugees on board landed in Frankfurt, Germany early Wednesday. The 19 refugees — three families and one father with his daughter — were later bused to Hamburg, Germany, which prepared a temporary shelter for 200 refugees. Several other cities and regions have offered to take refugees — including the northwestern state governed by Laschet.

Laschet, a staunch defender of Merkel’s 2015 refugee policy but whose campaign to succeed her has had setbacks, said earlier this week, “We shouldn’t send the signal now that Germany can effectively take in all those who are in need.”

But during a campaign event in northern Germany on Wednesday, he appeared to draw a line around a relative handful.

“As chancellor I will guarantee that everyone who is on these lists of names, and who helped Germany, will be taken in by Germany,” Laschet said.

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